Sometimes people complain to me

As a Learning and Development professional I am lucky to be able to help support people and organizations through growth.

Another way of phrasing this is, “sometimes people complain to me”.

They are often frustrated by someone else, by a policy, by a decision, by a lack of progress, or by not knowing the answer.

I know that their confusion and frustration signals that growth is right around the corner… if they choose to recognize it. I know this because I’ve been there too.

If people were apathetic, growth would be stagnant and stuttering at best. And that’s no fun.

Change (and learning) comes from feeling just enough yearning, a slightly wider gap between now and what could be, and a way forward, to be motivated to do something different.

But, frustration met with inaction makes for an admittedly tough situation.

And through hundreds of these conversations, and some of my own with close friends and family I’ve realized a few common themes pop up in nearly every growth conversation and opportunity:

  1. Learning what you want
  2. Learning to ask for what you want
  3. Learning to be alright with not getting what you want

There is usually something holding us back from each of these levels. Sometimes the growth is chronological – we have to learn who we are and what we want before we can ask for it.

We often don’t ask for what we want because we’re afraid of how it will look, or we want others to like us or agree with us. We can’t make everyone like us, but we can earn the respect of others by respecting ourselves first enough to speak up.

Sometimes we are masters of the first two, but can’t let go of our expectations to recognize we are holding on to them too closely. Or, we expect too much of someone before they themselves are ready.

Our expectations fail us when we know exactly how we want the story to end and then are displeased it didn’t turn out how we’ve written it in our heads. You can’t force growth, you can only model it for others.

Growth, like anything else good that appears before us or our company happens first when we are patient with ourselves and with others. It comes from letting go of our expectation to change anybody else, and instead notice, and maybe modify ourselves.

When we care about something or believe in something or someone it can be even harder to do one of the 3 above.

There is a power, confidence, and a steadiness that comes from being masters at all three – one that lets us ride the wave of uncertainty and volatility much easier than forcing change or controlling the uncontrollable.

The best lessons, the deepest learning, and the most growth whether as individuals or parts of a larger system happen with patience, support, and readiness.  If growth were easy, it wouldn’t be so rewarding.

The Beauty of the Blank Page

Resistance to change shows up in many different ways. Many want to know the steps it’s going to take, the path we should expect, the guarantees of success.

It’s often when we’re the most nervous, impatient, or feel like we have the most to lose that we want to flip to the end of the book or the last few minutes of the movie, and skip the muddling middle to know with certainty, was everything “ok”, did things go as planned, did this work. Tell me now.

We’ll do the “tough thing” if we’re sure it will go alright, we’ll say how we feel if we know the person will respond well, we’ll… you get the point.

But we know, life is hardly this certain and stable, this linear, and this accepting of our desire to control.

If we look back at our most important experiences, and look to favorite stories or improv scenes, they are the ones highlighted by change.

The best improvisers, and often some of our best leaders look for opportunities to be changed every day and in every interaction. They find a few pillars to keep them stable (read: values, principles), but also find comfort in the certainty of knowing that change is constant. And, by being open to it themselves they allow space for others to enter the scene or the story, and for that change to trickle, to transform a person, a group, a company.

In times of transition or when something is new (read: uncertain), the default is often to hold on tighter. 

When we transition to a managerial role we have to learn to let go of much of the work of the past to make room for others to learn. The easier choice is to retreat back to the familiar for the quick fix and hit of certainty and safety.

We can also choose to let go of our status, or our desire for someone else to change instead. Because, deep down we know that other person has their own story to tell and uncover.

The truth is control narrows our focus and could keep us and those we lead from greater adventures, bigger stories, and profound and lasting change.

Because learning and change are synonymous, this letting go of old habits, frames, and ways of working are what deep, transformational learning looks and feels like. Change is rarely about taking on more – we can instead view it as letting go of what we no longer need.  

Letting yourself be changed doesn’t mean letting go of caring about what the change produces or who it affects. It just means not being afraid of the blank page and the story that has yet to be told.

On Choosing to “Go First”

I’ll go first.

As kids, we watch our parents for cues as to what’s safe, what’s off-limits, and what we should stay away from. They go first, so we don’t have to.

They’ll test the food to make sure it isn’t too warm. They’ll look for the monsters under the bed.

As we get older, those cues change or disappear, and the instinct or idea that something is safe, un-scary, or worthy of taking a risk on is not a sure bet…especially in our professional lives.

Leadership and risk

As we grow up and into Leaders, there is a moment when we discover that the very thing we crave…is what we need to create for others.

You say you want safety? Well, work to make things safe for someone else. Want a more joyful work environment? Lead from a place of joy.

We make a conscious decision to complain less about what we don’t see, and create more of what we want to see.

I’ll Go first.

We feel safe when we see others take the risk for us. This sacrifice goes beyond “acting the way you want to feel”. It’s taking responsibility…so that others can succeed. Instead of relying on someone else to go ahead or grant permission, take the stage.

This is not an easy transition. But it starts with a choice. You go first.

The Hardest Part of Learning

Learning is a process, not a one-time event.

For a student of anything (law, medicine, leadership, etc), they know that the hardest part is often what happens after the classes are done and the tests have been taken.

The hardest part is entering back into the ‘real world’ where they need to put their learnings to use and apply it to their job, their everyday life, their real-world situations. Where work gets in the way, where things don’t go exactly as planned, and where the “safety” of learning something new seems to have disappeared.

The gap from learning to behavior change, or learning to application widens when we view learning as an event, instead of a process.

Event-driven learning is sometimes meant to check-a-box, to boost morale, to hide an issue.

The gap in applying learning often happens when we spend too much time honing the event, and not enough time folding the learning into the environment where the learning will need to be applied.

The gap exists when we focus too much on the content (“it”) and not enough on (“us”), how we’ll work together because of what we learned.

When we view learning as a process, instead of an event, we take into account the motivation, the practice, and the feedback that we need as learners to make it our own, to make it social, and to make it stick.

If we enable and inspire people to be constant learners, learning becomes something that we choose to do, instead of something that is done to us.

Thank You, PDI

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In grad school studying Organizational Psychology, I wrote many-a-paper about the magic that is PDI/DreamWorks.

I wanted to understand and dissect what makes (now, made) that 600-person studio so special.

It was a “dream” work place in so many ways: a place where everyone knows your name, co-workers are family, there is no visible line between the creatives and non-creatives, and everyone is a storyteller. I won the lottery when I joined in 2005, and again when I came back in 2010.

The sudden news of its closing on Thursday hit me quite hard, and of course hit those who still call the studio home much harder.

It’s where I along with so many friends saw their dreams come true, met mentors and heroes, formed life-long friendships, and not only built a career, but a calling.

I’ll be forever grateful to have been a PDI’er – and know that those of us lucky to call it home will carry the magic with us to new adventures.  Whether you experienced PDI or not, know that a work environment so welcoming and inclusive that many of us returned over and over like we were coming home to visit family doesn’t have to be a dream.

Thank you PDI, for setting the bar so high… and for inspiring everyone who walked through your doors.

From nothing to something: How to create learning experiences on the fly

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Creating learning experiences on the fly is one of the many talents of Master Facilitator and Performance expert Thiagi.

Here’s just one example of an experience he recently created, and highlighted in his monthly newsletter. What you’ll find is that facilitating meaningful discussions on leadership, communication, and teamwork doesn’t necessarily require a 50-page slide deck or months of instructional design time.

What it does require, is a willingness to a) use what’s in the room (not just the materials, i.e. chairs… but the skills, knowledge, and capabilities of your participants) to co-create a meaningful and impactful learning experience.

Here, Thiagi recounts a recent training session where he walked into the room to see the chairs arranged in a single line.

I took one look at the room set up and thanked my lucky stars for providing the perfect arrangement for an experiential exercise. I told the participants to organize themselves into four groups of six. I asked one person in each group to act as a non-participating observer. I assigned myself the observer’s role for the group that had only five members. I asked each group to spend 7 minutes to plan how to rearrange the chairs in the room to permit teamwork and small-group discussions. I called the observers and gave them specific suggestions on what to watch out for.

After the 7 minutes of planning, I asked members of each group to hold one-on-one conversations with the members of the other groups. After about 5 minutes, I asked the groups to revise their original plans to please the members of the other group. Each group presented its final plan. The plans included removing all the chairs to the hallway and conducting a stand-up session, arranging the chairs in six clusters of four, arranging 24 chairs in a large circle, and letting each participant own a chair and carry it around whenever a new configuration was required. We conducted a poll to choose the best approach (which turned out to be each participant lugging his or her chair around) and spent 5 minutes implementing the plan.

This activity provided valuable experiences related to communication and leadership. I conducted a debriefing discussion with these types of questions: Who assumed the leadership role? Who talked the most? Who came up with the best ideas? How did you listen to the others in your group? To the people from the other groups? How did you attempt to persuade the others? Who kept track of the time? Who took notes? What would have happened if I assigned the leader’s roles to specific participants?

These questions and the responses from the participants and the observers formed the foundation for leadership and communication principles and procedures that we explored for the rest of the day.

Instead of lecturing about leadership to begin the session, Thiagi designed a simple experience for his participants to learn by doing – and to guide the debrief towards specific learning outcomes.

Simple, yes. Effective, yes…  if we can create the conditions and ask the right questions to pique curiosity and spur reflection, then we have more tools already at our disposal than we realize.

The story secrets of organizational change

In the world of Storytelling and Organizational Consulting, similar mantras are drilled into us – different words, similar meaning:

1. Make the audience the hero

2. Meet the client where they are

Both of these mantras speak to empowering people and companies, to help them feel, think, do, and see things differently so that they are called to action to enact change.

What this boils down to is – I see you (the client, the character, the company), where you are, for what you are…and I believe in you.

What this requires of us (those who lead change efforts and write the words to inspire) is patience, and a bit of scaffolding.

The best example I’ve seen of living out both of these mantras was Columbia University Professor William Duggan. I write about him often, and, nope, I probably won’t stop.

He had important words say, to teach, and to share. He drew us in carefully and artfully, by speaking the audience’s language (read, mostly MBA students), and skillfully partnering with them to help students come to important realizations themselves. Three acts. Small steps. A slowly built narrative balanced with equal parts logic and emotion at just the right times, each chapter asking for a bit more of us as we went.

In awe of his art, I asked him how he crafted his semester-long class. What was his secret?

Make the audience the hero. Meet them where they are.

He was teaching a slightly unconventional topic and wanted his students to come along for the ride. How often have we too had a great idea, something we care deeply about sharing, and want others to join in on? Hands up, everyone! I see you.

His reminder – you can’t do that by forcing an idea. That’s all head, no heart. He metaphorically held the idea and the a-ha out for his students in his out-stretched arm. And carefully crafted a sequence of steps where they’d be encouraged and motivated to keep reaching. One class after the other.

It’s not too much of stretch to equate this art to leadership.

But how often does our desire to push and prod instead of join and co-create take over our best impulses – especially under stress and threat?

How often does our desire to be seen as the hero and to not quite understand or empathize with where the client could be force us to push too far and stop the story? I’m certainly guilty.

To meet the client, the student, the reader where they are and to help them see that they are the hero is to recognize that we aren’t writing the story by ourselves. It’s not our story. It’s theirs. It’s not my change effort. It’s ours. Or, in many cases… it’s just theirs. And that’s a happy ending.

How Learning can become celebrated instead of neglected, via HBR

Imagine the scene – it’s a Friday afternoon at Awesome Company. Your CEO stands in front of you and your colleagues at the company all-hands meeting. In addition (or, instead of) chatting about company milestones, sales targets, and tasks accomplished, he/she takes a different approach.

Your CEO sits down and shares what they are learning as a Leader, how he or she has changed over the past year, and how they are working to modify how they work and why. Here, learning is consistent, never complete, and very much out in the open.

In this all-too-rare but important moment, company leadership focuses on process instead of task. When transparency and learning meet and marry, conversations change. Learning also becomes seen as a continuous process and not a box to check. Perhaps, more energy is devoted to work on and explain how the company works together and not just list off what they’ve accomplished.

Yes, leadership might come forward and share these learnings in a ghost-written book or in close dinners with friends – but there the focus is still on what was learned – in the past tense.

The act of consistently learning, in that messy and un-defined and wonderful way that isn’t always tied to clear-cut results is one that doesn’t often get talked about. 

We want others to learn and we help them do so, but are we too focused on learning as an outcome (as task) instead of learning as a process? If the latter were the case, we’d help people learn how to learn, i.e. to be more curious and to reflect.

All too often, says Professor Gianpiero Petriglieri in his latest post from the Harvard Business Review , we’re only focused on a specific outcome, even when it comes to organizational learning. “People care about what you have learned. They care about your results. Learning is great as long as you do it quietly, in your own time.”

When the pressure to deliver results instead of learning takes precedence, “the pressure to keep up and prove oneself all but overwhelms the aspiration to step back and reflect.”

Those who are in the business of life-long learning know that transformational learning, and deep, important change can often look like a cycle, or spaghetti, or two steps forward and one step back… instead of a one-way road.

If we change our expectation, and perhaps alter how we view our learners and we what believe to be true, maybe we can reward others for the act of learning… and not just the end result.